Women's Football

The Washington Spirit's turbulent journey to the 2021 NWSL Championship

Lizzy Becherano
Washington Spirit defy odds to win the 2021 NWSL Championship
Washington Spirit defy odds to win the 2021 NWSL Championship / Joe Robbins/ISI Photos/GettyImages
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The Washington Spirit lifted their first ever NWSL Championship trophy on Saturday after defeating the Chicago Red Stars 2-1 with a last-minute winner by none other than Kelly O’Hara. 

It was the 33-year-old's first goal for the Spirit and he became the oldest ever NWSL athlete to net in a playoff game in the process. While the team’s efforts on Saturday afternoon earned them the trophy, it was their determination and passion away the field that marked the 2021 season as historic. 

The club had all to lose. The staff turnover and internal turmoil primed the team for failure. Let’s look back at the timeline of all the chaos the Spirit ensued before miraculously reaching the final. 

In August, the team announced that long time head coach Richie Burke would step down from his duties and be reassigned to the Spirit front office.

Initially, the NWSL club cited ‘health concerns' as cause for the departure, but the Washington Post quickly revealed the complicated reasoning. 

Molly Hensley-Clancy published a story citing the toxic work environment Burke had created, speaking to former player Kaiya McCullough as she alleged that the former head coach used racist language and verbal abuse.

The team announced a pending investigation following the publication. On September 28, Richie Burke was officially fired following the results of the case. 

While many thought that would be the end of the Spirit’s chaos, the NWSL investigation actually “widened to include allegations of a toxic work culture for female employees.”

Suddenly there were more problems than previously anticipated. 

While the full details were not made public, Hensley-Clancy reported that “Co-owner Steve Baldwin, Burke and president of sporting operations Larry Best had created a culture in the club that prevented multiple players and employees from speaking up.”

Fans and players united to call out the management, with many joining together to protest matches. 

On October 5, Steve Baldwin resigned as CEO and managing partner, handing full authority over all club operations” to former D.C. United head coach and new president of team operations Ben Olsen.

His actions did not fully satisfy spectators after he failed to indicate whether he would be selling his stake of the club. Additionally, critics pointed out the poor judgement of leaving Olsen, an individual with no prior experience of his role, in a position of immense power.

The team's staff and ownership problems remain ongoing.

As the Spirit maneuvered through extraordinary circumstances, the league as a whole was also dealing with the repercussions. North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley was fired as allegations of sexual coercion came to light, while commissioner Lisa Baird stepped down after an avalanche of criticism. 

Gotham FC general manager Alyse LaHue saw an untimely departure from the club after an investigation into the league's anti-harassment policy.

Racing Louisville fired coach Christy Holly during the season "for cause," without further elaboration, while OL Reign coach Farid Benstiti resigned after being asked to step down from the job.

To top everything off, the team was forced to forfeit two matches due to violating Covid-19 protocols. 

Against all odds, the players of the Washington Spirit rallied. Individuals came together to support one another and work together to reach on goal: the championship.

Spectacular performances from O’Hara, Andi Sullivan and Trinity Rodman secured the final victory, but the team’s unity off the pitch truly propelled their success. 

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